Everything Wrong With How We’re Talking About Ja Morant

Kevin Yeung dives into the problematic ways in which conversations surrounding Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant have led to him being labelled as a "thug" and "criminal" since he flashed a pistol on...
By    January 24, 2024

Image via Ja Morant/Instagram

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To Kevin Yeung, watching the Pistons try to win a game is better than the in-season tournament.

It was all fun and games when Chris Kaman posted his rifles online. During his 13 years in the NBA, the one-time All-Star known as ‘The Caveman” became known for his avid interest in collecting firearms. He was a recreational hunter with a YouTube channel dedicated to his outdoor escapades and occasional .50 caliber rifle tests. He liked to tweet photos from the shooting range and the gun store from time to time. None of this is damning, of course. And in 2016, Kaman retired after a respectable, relatively obscure, and controversy-free career to a private life in the Michigan farmlands.

This has not been Ja Morant’s experience. Almost a year ago, Morant went live on Instagram from the dim-lit backroom of some Colorado strip club, shirtless while NBA YoungBoy blared in the background, and flashed a pistol to the camera. The consequences have followed him since. At first, there was an eight-game suspension. Then after being seen with a gun on Instagram Live again in May, he was suspended for the first 25 games of this season — the ninth-longest suspension in NBA history. Chris Kaman wasn’t exactly live-streaming himself from the club with his rifles, but this seems like a good time to point out that Morant hasn’t broken any laws either. Controversy has rarely ever been colorblind.

Before the season, ESPN published a story that went in-depth on Morant’s “18-month downfall,” connecting a line from his gun incidents to “warning signs” such as his proclivity for alcohol and strip clubs. In this construction of the narrative, he’s another athlete fallen victim to his vices. Citing sources from across the team, the league and the city of Memphis, the consensus aligns with the final quote in the story given by a local busisinessmen. “[Ja] wants to be more of a rapper than a basketball player. It’s going to go bad.”

Gone bad, it has. Before any of this, Morant was the NBA’s heir apparent. Nike tested the waters to see if he could be the face of their next great sneaker line. He’s electrifying, a free-flyer who defies expectation as easily as he does gravity, and he was almost impossible to dislike. His Grizzlies were more successful far sooner than anyone thought possible, and time was on their side to reach even greater heights. Life in the NBA, however, moves fast. Morant’s suspension doomed his team this season — they were a longshot for the playoffs when he came back, and a season-ending shoulder surgery has since put that dream to rest for good. Meanwhile, new heir apparents emerge in Oklahoma City, Minnesota and Indiana. Our most prominent sports analysts will remind you that this is what Morant had to lose.

I’m not interested in hand-wringing over the ethics of flashing a gun on Instagram Live, other than it seems a little foolish given what were fairly obvious consequences at the time. bBt what stands out to me is the full-court press in the ensuing news cycle. It was staggering to see just how strong the league and its broader media apparatus came out against Morant. He was a leading story on national TV networks, and the perfect fodder for studio shows to moralize about his character and professional future.

In the playoffs, Charles Barkley was on center stage calling Morant a ‘thug’ and ‘criminal’ and ‘crook’. This, as opposed to any sort of similar energy for players accused of domestic violence.) I do take issue with the reports of Morant’s physical threats and assaults towards teenagers and mall workers, which are more genuinely troubling, but those weren’t the cited reason for his suspensions and haven’t really been at the forefront of the conversation.

Even then, that conversation is becoming dangerously abstracted from what Morant has done, or even Morant himself. “Thug” and “criminal” and “crook” are relics from a tired and familiar discourse, after all. This predates Morant; instead, it’s starting to feel like a referendum on the NBA’s view of acceptable Blackness. When Morant was suspended, the Grizzlies stopped playing rap music during their pregame warm-up. I don’t think any of us are strangers to corporate boogeymen in this day and age, but this seems to me like an especially silly one.

It almost feels like we’ve been returned to the David Stern era, when the NBA’s response to the Malice at the Palace brawl was to institute a dress code outlawing “hip-hop fashion.” Knowing what would come with the optics of Black players attacking white fans — regardless of context — the league chose to pin it on Timbs and durags. Ironically enough, today’s NBA might be an industry leader when it comes to taking from Black aesthetics. When the most popular rap stars of the day attend games, the league misses no opportunity to feature them on official social media posts. Rappers partner with teams and are invited to league events, often as performers and even as de facto spokespeople for the league. You can’t go to a game or watch a broadcast without hearing rap music. In much of how the league presents itself and is presented by its television and media partners, it chooses an image adjacent to hip-hop.

This is much different, though, from the NBA being able to reconcile with rap’s grittier and less brand-friendly elements. Bearing in mind rap music’s roots as a voice for those from poor, racialized and disenfranchised communities, it’s hard to argue that the league could ever embrace anything more than a watered-down facsimile of rap culture. That isn’t anything new or profound, since it reflects much of what is happening across pop culture writ large these days, but it does take us to this funny little place where the NBA can be cozy with rappers from Drake, Ice Spice and 21 Savage to Babyface Ray and Veeze while its stars are simultaneously criticized for wanting to be rappers instead of basketball players. The most popular knock you’ll hear against Morant right now is that he’s listening to too much NBA YoungBoy, and that feels like a neat encapsulation of the misconceptions and moral crises around both.

Many basketball players, like rappers, disproportionately come from poor and Black neighborhoods, but professional basketball, unlike rap music, suppresses any elements of that background that it deems a possible blemish on its brand image. A significant number of the league’s player population have lived through some of America’s worst conditions, only to be marketed as something more akin to Disney stars. I don’t really believe in gun ownership, to be clear, but it’s silly to act like the conditions surrounding gun ownership are the same when you come from, say, a middle-class suburban community rather than a Black neighborhood ensnared in poverty.

It’s starting to feel a lot again like the Jail Blazers era of the early-2000s, when players like Rasheed Wallace and Damon Stoudamire warred with local media in Portland over such controversies as… *checks notes* smoking weed and getting called for a shit-ton of technical fouls. (There were other players on the team found guilty of more genuinely harmful acts, but they were peripheral characters in the annals of Jail Blazers history.) This is nothing new, of course. A guy named Bill Walton, who’s been known to smoke a little weed now and again, played for the Blazers decades before Wallace and Stoudamire, but the difference is that Walton is white and the Jail Blazers weren’t and we know how these things go when it comes to weed and guns.

Truly, what’s so bad about wanting to be a rapper? Rap music isn’t just the raw, Bacchanalian embrace of guns and liquor and strippers — that anyone still thinks so is, more than anything, what makes me feel like we’ve regressed 20 years — and even when it is, it’s firmly in the context of decades of rap history and the forces that have melded the communities rap comes from. Rap music is one of the best things we have going for us, and it’s been dealing with this shit since the start. So, I’m not especially surprised that a street rapper from Detroit was able to outflank the debate-show class with a better Ja Morant take — understanding, sympathetic and far less paternalistic — than I’ve seen anywhere else.

On “Ja Morant,” Peezy makes the simple case that starting to get some money doesn’t immediately negate the challenges of growing up poor and Black: “I can’t help how I was raised, who else am I ‘posed to be? The paper ain’t making it no better, this shit ain’t as easy as you think,” he says. “Know I’m trying to do what’s right, but can’t change overnight.”

By the time Morant returns from injury next season, he’ll be 25 years old, and the Grizzlies will have gone from the young team next up to firmly in their title window. With stakes like those, perhaps we’ll see him conform to the expected standards of the NBA. I can’t imagine that there’s going to be much appetite for another lost season in Memphis after this one. But a funny thing happened in one of his first games back — a triumphant overtime win in the New Orleans Pelicans’ house, featuring a signature Morant alley-oop in the final seconds to ice it. After the dunk, Morant broke into a popular local dance inspired by New Orleans bounce music. It was immediately mistaken for a gun-related celebration.

Considering his response to the video of a white quarterback doing the same dance, I think Morant knows the score, the double standards that burden him. There’s an element of keeping your pride too, as the sprawling multibillion-dollar enterprise that has grossed unholy amounts of profit from his talent also continues to fail him. This, to me, is the greatest resemblance to rap tradition that I see in Morant right now. He’s still trying to keep his head high, in the face of every contradiction and fallacy formed against him.

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